As our country slowly returns to normal, Americans continue to add pets to their households. And as the status of pets continues to rise from that of animals to family members, demand has grown for modern, state of the art diagnostics and veterinary care.
In some cases, however, pet parents are turning to a modality that has been used to treat a myriad of conditions for thousands of years - acupuncture.
When our elderly dachshund, Grendel began showing clinical signs of the back and neck pains common to her breed, our options for treatment were limited. She suffered from a congenital liver condition and was in the early stages of renal failure. These conditions can be exacerbated by long-term use of the veterinary NSAIDS that are often prescribed to treat chronic, orthopedic pain.
Facing limited options, we put in a call to a colleague who specializes in veterinary acupuncture.
In the field of traditional Chinese medicine, illness is the result of imbalance in the life force called Qi (pronounced “chee”) which flows through the bodies of both humans and animals. Qi is thought to flow through channels or meridians in the body.
These meridians, as well as the accompanying flows of energy, can be accessed via acupuncture points on the body. By inserting tiny needles into said points, practitioners can restore the proper flow of energy throughout the body and thus stimulate the healing process naturally.
While the terminology is often criticized for sounding New Age-y or obscure, acupuncture points are in fact located where nerves, muscle, and connective tissue can be stimulated. This stimulation increases blood flow, while at the same activating the immune system, and triggering the release of the body’s natural painkillers.
When discussing acupuncture with pet parents, the first question is usually whether or not it is painful for the pet.
Admittedly, I did not look forward to Grendel’s first treatment. A drama queen to the core, she would turn every nail trim and ear cleaning into a glass-shattering temper tantrum of shrieks and howls. To my utter astonishment, she yelped only once when the practitioner touched her for the first time. She did not react when the first needle was inserted. Nor the second. Nor the third. By the time the last needle was placed, she was dozing peacefully in her bed.
As her treatments progressed, her mobility improved. She was more active and alert, and even initiated play sessions with our other dog - something she had not done for several years. When her renal disease became more of an issue, the practitioner shifted her treatment plan to focus on the meridians that govern kidney function and appetite. We were truly blessed to have had her in our lives for seventeen years.
In the state of Florida, only licensed veterinarians can perform acupuncture on pets. Since knowledge and experience with acupuncture is not required to graduate from vet school, it’s important to find a veterinarian who has the additional training and certification to practice acupuncture on companion animals.
Once you have found a licensed veterinarian who is comfortable with acupuncture, the next step is to schedule an initial exam to determine if your pet is a suitable candidate for acupuncture.
It is entirely possible that this first session will involve no needling whatsoever as the practitioner gathers as much information as possible about your pet’s ailments, environment and personality. In this way, he or she can formulate a treatment plan which not only addresses areas of specific need, but also compliments treatments your pet may already be undergoing.
Acupuncture sessions generally last about thirty minutes, but duration can vary depending on the needs of the pet. The practitioner may also add pressure, heat, or mild electrical stimulation to further enhance the effects of treatment. The number and frequency of treatments will depend on the pet’s response.
Grendel was initially treated twice per week, before gradually shifting to monthly sessions.
Veterinary acupuncture can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including, but not limited to arthritis, neurological pain, paralysis, soft tissue injuries, anxiety, kidney disease, inappetence, and gastrointestinal disorders. Risks are minimal and side effects are rare.
Acupuncture is generally referred to as Complementary Alternative Medicine meaning it can be integrated into existing treatment plans with your pet’s regular veterinarian. Perhaps most importantly, it can provide quality of life for pets who may have limited options due to advanced age or disease.
While I am blessed beyond words to have had Grendel in my life for seventeen years, it was important for me to know she was free from discomfort and pain. Regular acupuncture sessions played a vital role in ensuring all her years were good years. Like all pet parents, it was all I ever really wanted for her. Acupuncture helped to make that happen - and made me a believer.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.